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Progress Report: Where Does Zeke Go From Here?

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Editor's Note: NFL rosters change wildly from year to year. This year will be no different, as the Cowboys seek to upgrade their roster via free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft. Still, a large percentage of their roster is already in place, and they'll have plenty of work to do to improve last season's 6-10 record. In the coming weeks, the staff of DallasCowboys.com will evaluate those players who are already under contract, examining their past performance and future outlook. Today, we'll continue the series with defensive running back Ezekiel Elliott.)

The Good: On the surface, you'd think the reviews would be overwhelmingly positive for a running back that finished No. 11 in rushing yardage, coming just 21 yards shy of 1,000 for the season.

It speaks to Ezekiel Elliott's past production – and the expectations on him – that 2020 was seen as anything but good.

There is some "good" to be found. Elliott was available for 15 games last season, and he was at times the only consistent voice of leadership in a season of constant turmoil. Throughout some horrific losing streaks, he was always there to face the music and handle the scrutiny. That's probably why the local media presented him with their annual "Good Guy" award for the season.

It's also fair to point out that Elliott was without his starting quarterback and most of his starting offensive line for much of the season. From the time Dak Prescott went down in Week 5, Elliott was the focal point of opposing game plans and still managed to finish with 1,317 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns.

The Bad: All of those nice things said, there's no way to spin 2020 as anything other than a disappointment for the Cowboys' star running back.

Even with so many missing elements of the offense, the Cowboys simply did not see the game-changing production they've come to expect from one of their cornerstone players. Elliott averaged a pedestrian 4.0 yards per carry, which was the lowest average of his career. His game-breaking runs were also few and far between, as he managed just three runs of 20-plus yards all season.

Then, there were the ball security issues. Elliott fumbled six times last season, which led all running backs across the NFL. He lost five of those fumbles – several of which helped put the Cowboys in early holes against the likes of Atlanta and Cleveland.

Add all that together, and it's understandable why Elliott has faced so much criticism in the wake of the season.

Best of 2020: Even in the midst of a forgettable season, the Cowboys showed that their blueprint for Elliott can work to perfection.

In the Week 16 blowout of Philadelphia, Elliott helped them close out the game in style, exactly the way they imagined when they drafted him back in 2016. He didn't score a touchdown on the day, but he finished with a healthy 105 yards on just 19 carries – a strong average of 5.5 yards per carry.

More importantly, most of that production came after halftime. With the Cowboys holding a 20-17 lead, Elliott pounded the rock 11 times for 78 of those yards, including a 31-yarder late in the fourth quarter. Not only was it Elliott's longest run of the season, but it helped spark the offense on an 87-yard touchdown drive that put the game out of reach.

Contract Consideration: There's no use hiding from it: virtually all of the criticism aimed at Elliott stems from the size of his contract.

The Cowboys famously signed Elliott to a six-year, $90 million contract extension just before the 2019 season, after a training camp holdout. It's easily the largest overall running back contract in the NFL, and his average annual salary of $15 million is second only to Carolina's Christian McCaffrey.

It's not that Elliott was awful in 2020. It's that the Cowboys are clearly paying him like the best running back in football, and he didn't come close to hitting that bar.

Naturally, people tend to have a lot of opinions when this type of money is involved. From the time the season started going south, plenty of critics have been calling for the Cowboys to dump Elliott's contract – whether that be via trade or an outright release.

It's not overly realistic. It's hard to imagine someone trading valuable assets for an expensive running back coming off a down season. It's also not ideal roster building to cut Elliott, given that a release would carry a dead cap hit of roughly $24.5 million. For a team that also has to figure out how to pay its star quarterback, that's a sunk cost they quite simply can't deal with right now.

Boiling it down to brass tacks, there is a way for the Cowboys to get away from Elliott's contract – but not until 2023. For the time being, it's a good bet Elliott's not going anywhere.

What's Next: Honestly, though, is that really a big deal?

Yes, Elliott had a disappointing season. No, he did not live up to the size of his contract.

Despite all of that, there's plenty of reason to expect a bounce-back effort in 2021. Elliott played basically his entire season with Tyron Smith and La'el Collins. He even lost Zack Martin for stretches of time. And of course, he played the majority of his season without his primary partner in the Dallas backfield, Dak Prescott.

Of course, in a perfect world, a $90 million running back would still be able to succeed without that much help. But it's hard to blame Elliott too harshly for a dip in production with that many Pro Bowlers sidelined by injuries.

With a healthier offensive line and an available starting quarterback in 2021, there's every reason to believe Ezekiel Elliott can find his old form again.

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